June 8, 2021

Platitudes for Grief. Cry, Laugh, or Rage- Reacting to these Cringeworthy Phrases


She Would Want You to Be Happy

He is at Peace Now

This is God’s Plan

Everything Happens for a Reason


Platitudes for grief are an easy trap to fall into as a support person.  We don’t know what to say, and these sound wise and true, and best of all, they sound simple.  Grief is too complex for comfort, so we grasp easy, logical solutions.  Silence makes us squirm, so we fill it in with these common phrases.  As we search for something to say in those moments, these sentiments burst forth, offering themselves up, and we gladly accept.  Some of these are rooted in belief systems, but those beliefs are not universal.  Regardless of how these concepts have gained momentum, they have been watered down to platitudes that feel so simplistic they are insulting.  While my logical self can look back at these phrases with levity, clarity, and an understanding that has come from years of hindsight and life experience, it was difficult in the thick fog of grief to see past the anger they provoked despite the good intentions of those who said them.  


Laughter is the Best Medicine


There are people in life who effortlessly evoke laughter in others. It is a profound gift. People love to be in their vicinity because the joy of laughter is so often a scarcity in our lives. Think of laughter for a moment. Who did you visualize? 


I always visualize my mom. She was funny, but more than that, she was joyful, and she would laugh uninhibited at her own humor.  Laughter is contagious in that way.  How can we keep from smiling when the person we are with is belly laughing?  She would play silly practical jokes on people, and the best part was never their reaction but her own.  She would laugh until tears came, even if others didn’t find it as hilarious as she did.  She baked a pie for my uncle out of apple cores instead of apples, made her best friend a cake out of sponges, accidentally gave my husband an umbrella full of holes in a downpour once, and she laughed and laughed.  When people can laugh at themselves instead of waiting for a laugh from others, they exude a kind of joy and self-confidence that we all crave.  Whether it was from this quality of hers or not, she was a light that people were drawn to.  


When she died, I felt as if I may never truly laugh again, in the deep and authentic way she had always laughed.  Life felt dark, and anything other than darkness felt like a betrayal.  If I were to laugh, truly belly laugh, it would contradict my grief and the depth of my loss.  I never wanted to laugh again.  I was young and experiencing the first true loss of my life.  I needed someone to remind me-  IT IS OKAY TO LAUGH.  This does not invalidate your grief. This does not invalidate your love or all you have lost.  


The weekend before my mother’s death was my daughter’s second birthday.  My dad had brought a huge commercial-sized bounce house to my house to use during her party, and it was still in his vehicle when she died.  The night before the funeral, he had the idea to blow it up in the front lawn of my Uncle’s house where most of her siblings were staying and getting ready for the services the next day.  In the dark, we unraveled a huge Winnie the Pooh bounce house and plugged it in to inflate, with Pooh Bear’s head looming and bobbing with the wind just outside of their bedroom windows.  Once it was up, we all drove away and left it there for them to discover.  It was so aligned with who my mom was, exactly the type of thing she would do.  They found it, and they laughed and felt some joy to take the sting of the pain away.  It couldn’t have been more perfect.  Yet, I remember driving away that night and sobbing instead.  I refused to feel the lightness of the moment and acknowledge that laughter could have any place in my grief.  It is only in hindsight that I can see the perfect beauty of the surprise bounce house on the day of her funeral.  


It has now been almost 12 years since that summer.  I have laughed a great deal over the years.  Last weekend, I was driving my family on a camping trip several hours away, and we made a quick stop so I could use the bathroom.  I ran inside and decided to grab myself some junk food.  As I picked something out for myself, I saw something for my daughter and then searched for something for my son so he would not complain, and then I quickly checked out and hopped back in the driver’s seat.  My husband asked what I got for him, and I realized that I was once again the opposite of a Martha Stewart, picture-perfect wife- I had in fact forgotten to get him anything. Something about it made me start to laugh.  And then I couldn’t stop.  I laughed so hard that as we prepared to drive away, I could not turn out of the gas station because I couldn’t see past the tears in my eyes.  It was pure laughter from deep inside, and I cannot explain to you in words why I felt like I was my mother for a moment.  It was such a random thing that triggered me to laugh. Still, suddenly she was there, inside of me, teaching me how to lean into the joy, reminding me that the best laughs are when we find that humor somewhere within ourselves and give way to it without needing anyone else to see the joke.  They don’t always need to see it.  They need to see us, our laughter, and our joy. But, most importantly, we need to see our own joy.  When we find those threads that bind us to those we have lost along the way, it is an even greater gift.  


The thing about saying “Laughter is the best medicine” is not wrong; it is misunderstood.  Laughter will not cure your grief.  Laughter will not invalidate your grief.  There are no rules, no right way, or wrong way to grieve.  Rather than telling someone that laughter is the best medicine, try saying that laughing doesn’t mean you aren’t hurting.  Medicine is needed for an illness, and grief is not an illness but a universal experience that began with love.  Gently remind someone that they are allowed to have any variety of emotions following a loss.  They are allowed to be angry, to cry, to be shocked, and to laugh.  


 “Time heals all wounds” 


This is meant to provide comfort.  It reflects an experience that things will not always be as heavy and painful as they are in the moment.  We will not always be in the deep depths of grief, but we will always carry grief in some form and capacity. Our losses become one with us, and together we figure out how to move forward without having to move on.  There is no pure “healing” from a wound as intimate and deeply intertwined with our beings as grief.  When someone is functionally bleeding out in front of us with a big gaping wound of loss, it feels incredibly tone-deaf to reply with “time heals all wounds” because this wound is too fresh.  There is too much to attend to before one can begin thinking about healing.  The insinuation that the person can simply accept it will get better over time, and therefore the current wound is insignificant and not worthy of care and attention is insensitive and insulting.  If we think purely of bodily wounds and the healing that takes place with time, time will indeed result in some manner of healing.  This is not to say there will not be a scar or some bodily disfigurement left in the place of a wound.  Healing looks different depending on the extent of the injury; grief healing is the same.  The pace is unique. Whether they are visible to others or not, the scars we are left with are also uniquely personal. 


Time is also a warped concept when grieving.  Everything feels incredibly long and short at the same time.  I have written an article about the strange concept of time in relation to grief- Grief Math and the Strangeness of Time, where you can read more about this.  Rather than using the abstract future to provide comfort, meet the person where they are now.  If they are hurting now, do not try to magic it away with promises of a brighter future. Instead, recognize the hurt, sit with them and remind them that it is okay to feel.  Time will do its strange thing all on its own.  


If it sounds cliche, pause before saying it and be intentional with your support. 


As true as the sentiment in any platitude may be, the conceptualization of any future beyond the immediate pain is difficult. Internally we are like the original computer; the size and depth of our grief consume the entire room as we try to process all the angles of our loss. It is an inefficient, slow, and frustrating experience to hold this huge, ancient, and cumbersome computer in our minds as everyone around us is computing on tiny super-powered machines that fit in the palm of their hands. They see things more clearly, they process things more quickly, and they wonder why they can’t just hand us the solution they found in only seconds. The problem is, our equations appear similar but are not the same. The size of our grief (and the love it arose from), the amount of processing we need to do, are too vast for the newer microcomputers to handle. Our only choice is to step into the room that is floor to ceiling and wall to wall, working to process it all. That room is loud and lonely. You may open the door and join someone in their room, but only if you leave your smaller supercomputer solutions (and your platitudes) out in the hall. 


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